“And for all who are far off . . .”
I guess that’s us.
I guess that’s everybody.
It was even, at least for a time, Peter and company. After all, the crucifixion accounts make it clear that the disciples watched Jesus die from a distance. It’s the same word as in Acts 2: makran, far off, at a distance. The disciples kept their distance at the end. The very ones who had promised (and then doubled down on the promise) that never would they leave Jesus’ side ended up leaving Jesus’ side so fast the dust flew up from their sandals as they ran. Over there, some distance off, was the Son of God, God-in-skin, the Messiah, writhing on a cross to save the world. But a chasm yawned open between that God and those frightened disciples.
But hadn’t that been pretty much the case ever since, very early on in the story, humanity turned its back on God and tried to light out on its own? Isn’t the most sorrowful part of the Bible’s story of The Fall into Sin the part where Adam and Eve hide from God? Oh, they claimed they were embarrassed to be naked but that surely counts as history’s first bold-faced lie. Even back then Adam and Eve were clever enough to wrap themselves up in something or another and, once they had done so, they could have happily gone to meet their Maker when he called out for them. If nakedness were the only issue, it was resolved easily enough. No, what placed them makran from God was something far more sinister and far, far less easy to cover up or repair. In fact, from the human side of things, the canyon that cleaved open between God and humanity way back when could not be bridged. We were forced to remain far off from no less than God himself
It took the Son of God to solve the problem. He journeyed directly into our far country of sin, coming down personally (and in person) to do what all of us who lived far off could not do: bring about a reunion of Creator with creature. Perhaps predictably, though no less tragically, the encounter did not initially go well. The One who made the world was persona non grata in that same world. He was unheralded, unrecognized, and finally unwelcome by the very people who were in as good a position as anyone to welcome him properly. But they kept their distance from the odd rabbi from Nazareth.
For a while, though, some drew near. Lots of people did briefly. They drew near to see what they could get from him, mostly in the form of healings or free lunches. But a select few got even closer and formed an inner circle of love and devotion. Deep down, though, they were also hoping for Jesus to deliver some things he had not come to deliver, like political clout and power and prestige. And so once it became clear that this was neither Jesus’ goal nor his destiny, they withdrew and beat the same path away from Jesus as the larger crowds had already done. By the time Jesus was approached by men wielding hammers and spikes and spits of wood, there was no one on earth to stand up for him. In the end the only people close enough to touch Jesus were the ones holding down his wrists and ankles so the spikes could be positioned just so.
“This Jesus whom you crucified . . .” Peter said. You. Of course, no one in that crowd that day had actually delivered any hammer blows. Peter had not either. He was too far off to do the actual dirty work. Still . . . Jesus was crucified precisely because we are all far off from him and, left to our own devices, we would still keep our distance even to this day.
Lots of people do, after all. Mention faith in Jesus in the “polite company” of cultural sophisticates and intellectual snobs and you’ll see eye-rolling and perhaps find yourself on the receiving end of a red-faced diatribe against the stupidity of still holding to religious faith in the modern world where science has upended and uprooted every religious precept ever naively embraced by humanity. Some people are still far off and they like it that way.
But we all were once. So what is the solution? According to Peter the way to draw near after all is baptism. We become united to Christ Jesus in the very thing that initially caused even the disciples to back way off: his death. We repent. We own up to the fact that what happened to Jesus was our fault, our doing. Those were our sins laid on him. We own up to that ugly fact and so in baptism die with Jesus. We drown. But if it’s Jesus we go down with, it is also Jesus we rise up with.
And once that happens—once Jesus easters himself into our hearts—then we find that we are no longer far off. Nope! Now we are one with him, we live “in Christ” to use the Apostle Paul’s favorite two-word prepositional phrase for the Christian life. We are reunited with the loving Creator God who in the beginning so plaintively called out for his lost children, “Adam! Eve! Where are you?” Someone once asked a rabbi why God had to ask where Adam was. “Didn’t God know?” “Oh yes, God knew,” the rabbi replied, “it was Adam who needed to know he was lost.” Indeed it was. Indeed it still is so long as we remain far off.
Thanks be to God reunion has happened. Thanks be to God for Jesus of Nazareth whom God has made both Lord and Christ. Thanks be to God that all of us who have been far off have now been brought back from that far country to live with our God forever.
From a sermon by Hugh Reed, as quoted in Paul Scott Wilson, Setting Words on Fire: Putting God at the Center of the Sermon (Abingdon, 2008, pp. 159-60):
Allan (not his real name) came to me at my previous church in Hamilton, wanting to be baptized. He was a child (or victim) of the “me decade” and felt compelled to leave home and family to find himself and, of course, lost himself, becoming a stranger to himself and the world, wandering the streets of Vancouver trapped in a world of drugs. One night he managed to get off the street for a night in one of the shelters. He crashed into the bunk, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the groans, and trying not to be overcome by the odors of the strangers in the bunks around him. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know who he was, but he wanted it to be over with and he considered how he might take his own life.
He was shaken out of this thoughts when someone came in and called out a name from another world.
“Is Allan Roberts here?”
That had been his name once but he hadn’t heard it for some time. He hardly knew Allan Roberts anymore. It couldn’t be him being called.
The caller persisted, “Is there anybody named Allan Roberts here?”
No one else answered and so Allan took a risk. “I’m Allan Roberts (or used to be).”
“Your mother’s on the phone.”
My mother, no, you’ve made a mistake. I don’t know where I am, how could my mother know where I am?
“If you’re Allan Roberts, your mother’s on the phone.”
Unsure what to expect, he went to the desk in the hall and took the receiver. “Allan,” it was his mother, “It’s time for you to come home.”
“Mom, I don’t know where I am, I have no money, you don’t know what I’m like anymore. I can’t go home.”
“It’s time for you to come home. There’s a Salvation Army officer who’s coming to you with a plane ticket. He’s going to take you to the airport to get you home.”
She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him.
He went home and, supported and loved by his mother, who had never ceased to know him even though he had forgotten himself, and influenced and inspired by the faith that had sustained his mother’s hope and love, he began attending church services and one day came to my office seeking to be baptized.
He did not find his own way to my office . . . A path, not of his own making, [was] made by the love that found him, that knew him better than he knew himself, and invited him to “follow me.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 23, 2023
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 Commentary